Occurring during the inter-war period, those twenty years between the First and Second World Wars, the Spanish Civil War is not as well-known as it should be. For many, Picasso’s famous painting Guernica, commemorating the April 1937 bombing of the same named city, is the sole point of reference. And yet within those three years fratricidal violence between Spaniards reached a fever pitch rarely approached, much of it directed against the Catholic Church. Nearly 7,000 clergymen and women were killed during the conflict, some of them in the most gruesome fashion: disembowelment, castration, being burned alive.
A priest who survived this crucible is the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escriva. I once heard a story about Escriva, one of those impressionable stories you hear once and know you will never forget. The priest was walking somewhere in town down some alley, dark or light it was probably narrow, and as he readied to turn left or right he noticed a man approaching him with considerable earnestness, reaching, so it seemed, for a gun. Escriva was frozen in place. The man kept coming closer and closer. And then, out of nowhere, a massive man appeared, imagine, a truly huge man, close to seven feet tall but absolutely ripped, not an ounce of fat on him, one of those people who either by genetics or hard work or both has attained negative 1.1% body fat. And this huge man went at the other man with even greater intent. He scared him off. The would-be assailant turned and ran away. Escriva, we can assume, had still not moved from where he had been standing all along. ‘Mangy Donkey,’ the huge man said to the saint, perhaps patting him on the back or squeezing his shoulders. ‘Mangy Donkey.’ Then he too turned and left.
Escriva, as he recounted the story later, knew immediately. That was my Guardian Angel. Escriva was sure this was his because the only time he used the term ‘mangy donkey’ was in prayer, referring to himself; an appellation of humility, he nothing but a mangy donkey before the grandeur of the Divine Lord of the Universe. He did not share this moniker with anyone, not a soul, nor was it written down or accessible by any other form. So here was this man, this donkey, humbling himself daily in prayer, trusting in God, and when help was needed it appeared. And maybe we mangy donkeys don’t deserve full unveiling, don’t deserve our Guardian Angel to appear and say, ‘Yeah, by the way, I’m your Guardian Angel. Mark, nice to meet you. I’ve got like, uh, half an hour before I have to get back. You wanna shoot some hoops?’ ‘Mangy Donkey.’ It was enough.
I have begun tonight’s talk with this story because something similar happened to me recently. Although, for full immediate disclosure, in a reduced significantly scale. What I’m about to recount to you is not my own encounter with my Guardian Angel. Just the kind of unexpected answer to prayer that is timed perfectly because God’s timing is perfect.
I contracted Covid right at the beginning of last month, August. I was very blessed, very fortunate compared to the myriad people who have truly suffered during this pandemic. My case was mild, maybe even mild-minus, 2 out of 10. And yet, for someone who is pridefully used to feeling healthy and vigorous all the time, pridefully entitled to not feel under the weather for more than a day, no, scratch that, a few hours, it was, without question, the sickest I have ever been. I had a fever for over a week. I had plenty of congestion, a cough, and debilitating fatigue that nicely coupled with insomnia, so one could spend all day and all night in bed but without rest, restlessly awaiting a recovery that kept being delayed by the day. Delayed like Italian trains. When they say, it’s coming in five minutes, they mean it’s smoking in a ditch on the side of some road while the guys who are supposed to be repairing the train are themselves smoking. I had basically every symptom that is to be expected and a few extra symptoms that perhaps are inappropriate to discuss in polite society.
Well, ok, since you insist, I will share with you one of these latter symptoms, but only because public health authorities consider it extremely rare, even more rare than public health authorities providing accurate information. Now, wait, before anyone gets upset and asks how dare I criticize doctors without having a medical degree myself allow me to remind you that I have the exact same medical degree as one of America’s most trusted health advisors, Bill Gates.
I developed the ability to time travel, but only for two days, this malady went as soon as it came, like a mid-July Kansas prairie thunderstorm spitting grapefruit hale but leaving on the wings of a rainbow. I time traveled back to the nineteenth century and found out something interesting about our state. One delegate amongst a select charged with naming the place—as it transitioned from territorial status to statehood— wanted to call it ‘Awakenstaten.’ The reason being, as this one and same man, LeRoy McBeebob Biddles explained to me, that Idaho people were tired, dog tired worn down all the time. But wait, were, he said, because him and his brother, McMozart, had started a small coffee company that had taken off from day one. Idahoans couldn’t get enough of the Biddles brothers coffee and so what was once a populace plagued by exhaustion was now turned up alert. ‘Awake,’ he said, ‘ya see? We can drop the whole Idaho territorial thing and move into the bright light of progress, we can become the “Awake State,” Awakenstaten. And double meaning too, awake from the coffee, physically yes, but also awake intellectually, ready to lead America.’
It was at that moment that I realized, what a missed opportunity for us; Idaho. For we could have captured a third meaning here, here and now today, had these delegates accepted the Biddles motion and had Idaho become Awakenstaten. We would be today, as Awakenstaten, literally ‘Woke State.’ Imagine how much love we’d get from the New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, among others, if these organizations’ purveyors of goodspeak truth would greet their audience with ‘Thanks, Chris. Yes, I’m here live outside the capital in Boise, Awakenstaten…’
Unfortunately, the motion for the name change was rejected. More troubling still, the Biddles brothers ran into bunny-hopping heaps of legal issues when it was revealed that they had been selling their supposed ‘miracle coffee’ without the proper licensure and with permission from health/food safety authorities on, quote, ‘solely an emergency authorization basis.’ It was indeed an emergency, a pandemic some said, workers falling asleep on the job. That tired workers posed a danger to themselves and to others was, of course, unimportant. Companies were losing loads of piles piled on piles of fat-thick greenbacks restrained by snapping rubber bands money by the day. Something had to be done. So a few CEOs rubberbanded together and developed a genius plan by which they could force everyone to take something they themselves did not want to take and which could not touch that most special organ in their body, that beating pump of love, their wallets, for they were immune from any legal liability should anything be or become amiss. Some pretty nasty side effects were later linked to secret ingredients McMozart had added but not disclosed. And so it seemed, in hindsight, it wasn’t such a good idea for the Idaho territorial government to have mandated the drinking of Biddles brother coffee—one cup a day, no exceptions, no filing for a tea exemption—but that’s what they had done. I don’t know what happened after that. My time traveling symptom had resolved, I couldn’t go back. Sorry.
On day 12, or nine, or whatever of my bout with Covid I called out to God something like, ‘please, Lord, please help me with this. I’m tired of this. Please let it be over,’ something like that. That God would soon answer my prayer is only further evidence of His infinite goodness for, to be honest, I was being kind of a whiny baby at this point. My symptoms had been improving, even the Go Cougs WSU Cougar Health Go Cougs people who had called me to confirm my positive PCR test told me that I was out of the contagious phase, out of quarantine necessity as of two days ago. Then they closed the phone call with ‘Go Cougs.’ All this should have been received as positive news, but I did not receive it that way.
So there I was, the next day, on the campus of Washington State University, having just parked my car, well, in a car that had just been parked, my wife was driving. And there’s not a soul on campus because it’s the summer and this parking lot is as empty as a ghost town and yet, right next to us, two college kids park and so tightly that I think it’s going to take contortionist maneuvers to exit the vehicle without our door slamming into theirs. But’s that the mood I’m in, the whiny baby mood, and I want to smash their door with my door, a few times, for good measure. All four of us get out at the same time and I see these people and it’s like, great; frat guy and sorority girl from central casting. The guy’s even wearing sunglasses, a ripped tank top and a backwards baseball cap. We go to deposit the coins in the parking meter and the girl asks if we wouldn’t mind holding a flyer for some apartment complex while she takes a photo and shares it with, whoever, I mean whatever college people do now. I get it. If I wasn’t me and I saw the me that was no longer me the new me would totally ask the old me if the new me could take a photo of the me that is the subject of this sentence. So we agreed. But I blurted out something super dumb like, ‘uh, well, uh, do you mind if like, a keep this flyer because, well, I mean, I just like got over Covid or something.’
It was at that precise moment, freaking Mangy Donkey pedal to the medal, that this Incognito Aquinas frat boy opened his mouth and proceeded to let spill out spool after spool of what must have been divinely-touched golden wisdom as if on pick up the prescription at the next window, sir, have a nice day now, just what the doctor, the Divine Physician doctor, had ordered for me at that moment. I had Covid, too, this guy said. And it was really tough; a month of really bad chest pain, really feeling down in the dumps, night chills and sweats, but, you know what, I got through it and,’ smiling at me, at us, ‘you will too. Don’t worry,’ he said, like he knew I’d been worrying. And then he and his companion walked away.
The next few hours at the office were an honest experience of passing from anxiety to peace, an interior calmness thanks to the words this guy had spoken to me, thanks to God. After that, having returned home and drinking tea while eating oranges outside, my wife opened the door and asked me what was wrong, for I was crying into my oranges as I struggled to eat them. These are tears of joy, I explained to her, and God bless that frat guy, that mangy donkey. For not only was what he had said so comforting and with perfect timing but it was such a great lesson in humility too. The very person who I had falsely judged from first sight, this, as I imagined, dumb and so ‘cool’ and so dumb maybe day drunk rockhead college kid, his words would not have hit me more squarely had they been spoken by my actual Guardian Angel. God be praised, He who uses the weak to humble the strong, or, in my case the idiot. It’s not the first time I’ve been proven to be that, an idiot, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
This one moment led into a long train of reflections on humility and, ultimately, to this, this talk. I watched a YouTube video on the humility of the Blessed Virgin Mary and was struck by the claim that she never, in the entirety of her life, preferred herself to anyone. What a goal to aspire to, even if we, not immaculate and sinless like she, are bound to fail. To always give someone the time of day, to listen to others with genuine intent, maybe just to care, to show someone we care. And then I thought about the ultimate example, not just of humility but of all things, Christ Himself, and how radically humble all His actions were because, and this is the singular important thing, because He did not have to be. Christ is God. God is perfect and so had He come to Earth and displayed that grandeur at each and every turn it would have been appropriate, right and just, because for God to ‘show off’ his divinity would not be false nor fake. God being God aligns with truth, the barometer of humility, more on that soon. But you know how God actually acted when He came to Earth. The sole person who did not have to be humble was so beyond measure. And so since the one who did not have to be was, we have no choice to but to be ourselves.
But what is humility, anyways? Let’s first address what it is not. It is not, as the great preacher Father John Corapi pointed out, tearing oneself down to the lowest factor possible. As we all know, people who do this often are manifesting a weird type of pride, lusting after that moment to declare their utter worthlessness for all to hear. Father Corapi explained this attitude when saying, ‘Humility is not walking around with your down saying, “I’m no good. I’m go good.” You may be no good, but that’s not humility.’
Humility is the acknowledgement of the truth. It is esteeming things as they are, honestly. A humble, see: honest, statement declares that God is God, the Maker and Sustainer of the Universe, Everything, whereas me, I am nothing but a tiny dot, a contingent being who did not have to be but was brought into being by God’s love; and that’s the great catch, God loves me, He loves you. That’s a humble statement. LA Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford admitting he is good at football is humble. A good baker saying the same about her culinary skills is humble. World class Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin agreeing that he plays the piano well is humble. But Usain Bolt saying he’s ‘not that fast,’ or Tom Hanks introducing himself as someone whose ‘hobby is acting,’ or me saying ‘I’m not that smart, not that good looking’ these are not humble statements. I think you get it. Humility is simply acknowledging the truth, the way things really are.
But let’s extend it. For humility is not a destination but a pathway, a road towards caritas, that great two-pronged law and prophets command from Christ to love God above all and your neighbor as yourself. Now I want you to imagine something. Because we’re going to put humility is the acknowledgement of truth into a semi-mathematical expression. So imagine this: an old school blackboard that’s green not black therefore dating itself to circa 1977-1981 and on that green blackboard is a solitary line of white chalk running from left to right. On the far left is written 0-4. On the far right is written X, but an arrow directing one’s eyes off the board indicate X cannot be contained to this academic easel hanging on strained screws in some damp first floor classroom of a state university’s auxiliary building CC.5.
0-4 is all of humanity from, what we fallen people, with the eyes of the world, imagine to be the worst and the best among us. 0: people the world would describe as ‘failures,’ worse than that perhaps. 4: people who are ‘successful,’ ‘super talented,’ our ‘best and brightest,’ even unto a horrid sometimes blasphemous sycophantic adulation of those with a sports skill, or type of voice, or enormous bank account, as if they were more than human. X, the factor off the chart, off into infinity, beyond our comprehension, is God. And if you look at this 0-4 to X picture with the eyes of faith, with humility, under the clear skies of reality, you notice that there is very little difference between the 0 and the 4. And, in fact, there is no difference whatsoever. Everything good comes from God, that’s the humble truth, so even a hypothetical Nobel Prize laureate, Olympic gold medalist, Academy award winning model/actor who speaks thirteen language fluently can humbly, truthfully, say nothing but ‘God be praised’ for whatever gifts he has been given he is cognizant, if he is in fact humble, that he is no better, not one ounce better, than that man next to him, mentally challenged and confined to a wheelchair from his early years unable to feed or clothe himself or do anything without assistance. We are indeed all of us brothers, all pathetic sinners with nothing of our own to boast but, following the counsel of St. Paul, that Cross of Christ whose Death and Resurrection is our sole hope for deliverance from this vale of tears through which we pass. And God, ‘X,’ on this board, He is not, as the lukewarm worldly believers would have it, ‘9’ or ‘90’ of even ‘900.’ He is Infinity. His greatness impossible to capture, impossible to describe, yet the sustaining source for all of it, all of us.
Okay then, so how about four things we can all takeaway from this talk to help us live, by the grace of God, more authentically humble, more truthful lives. 1. Humility is the acknowledgement of truth, don’t fall off the boat in extremes either way; just the truth, reality, period. 2. Keep the 0-4 to infinity scale in mind for a visual aid relative to 1. 3. Imagine everyone, every single person you meet, is better than you; more intelligent, more interesting, better at even that which in humility you are good at, and holier than you especially, closer to God. Try living this and you might even approach, however dimly, that example set by Our Lady who preferred all people to herself. Finally, 4. Do not take yourself too seriously. We’re meant to take God seriously, to have holy fear towards Him and worship him with devout attentiveness. Take your job and your talents and serving your family seriously; but not yourself. Learn to laugh at yourself, that way when others inevitably laugh at you you can join in and claim, plausibly, that those people are laughing ‘with you, not at you.’ I’d like to imagine that if Bill Gates was here tonight, he’d laugh at the earlier jibe directed his way. I’d then point to him, he doubled over in jovial mirth, and say ‘Aha, behold a redeeming quality. Also, I guess he’s not a robot.’
But how can we combine these four points of humility in light of the Covid pandemic? First, I’d argue, let’s all stop pretending we know things we do not know. We do not know if the vaccines are safe or dangerous long term; we do not know if there are serious long term effects from even mild cases of the wild virus; we do not know if the virus escaped from a lab or jumped to humans zoologically; we do not even know who the good and bad guys are in this narrative, we do not know. One day we might know, I’m even confident we will know more of if not the whole story, but that day is not today. So, especially on that last point, why don’t we just pray for everyone? For in praying for everyone we’ll be praying for the good guys along with, and perhaps earning all the more merit in doing so, the bad guys, for it is Our Blessed Lord Himself who counsels us to pray for our enemies. Pray for everyone, wish everyone well. How nice, if in the spirit of humility, the unvaccinated stopped slandering the vaccinated with terms like ‘sheep’ and ‘useful idiot’ and ‘Big Pharma Fauci-Ouchy shill.’ How nice if the vaccinated stopped treating the unvaccinated as if they were unclean, almost leprosy-like science denying, selfish people bent on harming themselves and others. Is it really that hard to have an attitude like: whether you got the shot or not I wish you nothing but the best, health and well-being. May God bless you. Because if we know that Christ desires for us unity, fraternal goodwill between people, mutual respect unto love, then who, perchance, is the source of disunion and hatred? If the pandemic is causing you to hate, detest, and look down upon your neighbor, be assured that internal prod is not being pushed by God. If we are to ever emerge from these now 18 troubled months, we must do it unified, bound by love and compassion for one another, or not at all. We must strive to practice the full spectrum of humility, otherwise we will fail.
I’ll leave you with a final story, a small anecdote. It is probably my favorite story about humility and St. Antony of Egypt, the legendary 4th century desert hermit, is the central figure. St. Antony was out one day and crossed paths with Satan. ‘What are you doing out here?’ the saint asked the devil. ‘I’m busy tempting the brethren, the usual.’ Soon the devil began to mock him. ‘You know, Antony. I hear you’ve developed quite the reputation for fasting. You go days, close to a week without food. I never eat. And, uh, I hear you keep vigil for hours on end. You stay awake night after night trying to pray without ceasing. I never sleep. But, you know what, I have to admit something. You are humble. And I am not. And in the face of that, I am powerless.’